Sandy Wiggins: Transforming Personal Awakening Into Social Innovation
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Apr 23, 2016
Moderator: Birju Pandya
Host: Deven Shah
Transforming Personal Awakening into Social Innovation
Birju: Our guest today is Sandy Wiggins. He is one of the pioneers of the green building industry. He's master planned numerous communities, and his mandates have been about resilience and stewardship. Through all this, which we could say is his job, his work is about this pioneering movement that is about transformation both within himself and more broadly in finance where we are colleagues. I'm doubly grateful for his joining.
Sandy, thanks so much for being part of the call today.
Sandy: It is really my pleasure.
B: I'm curious how you are today?
S: I'm doing very well. I'm actually in Michigan this morning. My daughter and I came out yesterday to be with my wife who is sitting with her mother who is in the process of dying. But I'm feeling very grateful to being on the call with all of you, and looking forward to the conversation, Birju.
B: You live in your day-to-day in Washington D.C., correct?
S: That is right.
B: Before we start out, I want to send out best wishes from myself and this community as you go through that kind of very intense process, as it must be.
S: Thank you.
B: In your own journey, as you think about this background in real-estate that you have, was it sustainable real-estate from the beginning, or was that something that emerged as a result of some process or experience?
S: No, it was not sustainable real-estate from the beginning. The story for me began when I exited college, where I had done a double major in physics and philosophy. I spent a couple of years in a monastery, which turned out to not be the right path for me. When I came out of that experience, I really needed to figure out how to make a living.
I didn't have the money to go to graduate school. So I stumbled into the real-estate industry, and found out that it is something that I enjoyed--development and construction. I was good at it. There was a tangible product at the end of the day.
Actually the first 15 years of my life in that world was pretty much a traditional trajectory--climbing the corporate ladder. Until I found myself the executive vice president of a firm based in Philadelphia that I had actually helped build. I woke up one day and realized how far off course I was.
I will say that during that 15 year period, as long as there was another exciting challenge in front of me, I was motivated to move forward. And I also did maintain an inner life through that process, but it was very separate from my work life. And I maintained the life of an environmentalist. I love the outdoors. I've been an active outdoors person--backpacker, mountain climber, sea kayaker--my whole life. But none of those pieces were together.
B: I want to rewind a little bit here. The roots seems to go to that place of monasticism. What tradition were you involved with and what leads a person to graduate from school and enter into that path for years?
S: It was this deep impulse to seek answers to the big questions in life. I was trying to do that with my studies in physics and philosophy. It was a Roman Catholic monastery. I wasn't raised Roman Catholic, but that was what presented itself to me. So that is how I ended up there.
B: So you exited there and entered into this real-estate world, then you mention 15 years you just wake up, and you have an epiphany it seems like. What was that?
S; It was the realization...again, during that 15 years I had a great time. It was fun and exciting, and I was successful. I built up a lot of experience, acumen, and credibility in the industry. So it was fun.
But what happened after that 15 year period was this dawning awareness that "OK I've run through the gamut of exciting challenges, not that there weren't always new projects to take on. I was pretty established in the industry. I understood it very well. I was leading what I would call a "mercenary life." I was working just for money. For money, not for meaning.
That is not where I had started out. So there was this disconnect. There was this outward professional business person who was successful by all conventional standards. And there was this inner me who was unsatisfied and seeking still. And the gap between them just got bigger and bigger over time. It was that moment of realization.
What actually happened at that moment, literally within a couple of days of this intense realization, I was sitting down to lunch with an architect who was a dear friend of mine and who was designing a project that I was developing in Philadelphia. He shared a tiny three column inch article out of an architecture magazine with me that talked about the environmental impact of buildings. And I was like, "What?"
It had never had occurred to me, even though I was an active environmentalist, I had never connected that with my work life. And that just became an itch that I couldn't stop scratching. I just had to understand what that meant. This was back in the early 1990s, and there was not a lot of information available at that point about that. But I began to connect with anybody that wanted to have a conversation about it.
At first it was in my community in Philadelphia, just finding individuals--a person in city government, a couple of architects, another developer, some non-profit leaders. We began to gather regularly to talk about what that meant and what we could do about it.
The more I learned on this learning journey to understand the state of the world and the impact of human activity on the environment the more culpable I felt. So I began to work on my own practice and try to see what I could do about influencing others and the industry I was working in.
That circle grew larger and larger and eventually I connected with people around the country who were in that conversation. It became both my avocation as well as my vocation at that point.
B: I'm intrigued by what your sharing because my own context of the process of waking up 15 years into a career and saying wait this feels off, in the common lexicon that is referred to as the mid-life crisis. The response to that is a) let me have some more intense connection with the material economy or b) this realization that we have taken on a fair bit of obligations, so a shift is hard to do. So as you went through this it seems like your response to it was taking a risk, diving deeper into meaning and purpose. Was that easy for you?
S: It was not easy. It was frightening actually, but I didn't feel like I had a choice. I kind of launched into my adult life with a search for meaning, and here it was back at my doorstep and I saw a way for me to participate in creating change. I will say that during that 15 year period it felt very accidental to me that I moved into that industry. When I got to the point of realization that things were off, I was like "why have I wasted all my time on this?" The next thing that happened was a realization that I've got all this experience, acumen, and credibility in the industry. i can use this to do some good. That really shifted the way I looked at what I was doing with my life.
Simultaneous with that experience in me was a real resurgence in my need to develop myself on a psycho-spiritual level. Working on my personal growth as well.
B: See that confluence is super interesting to me. But I want to start with this three-column piece that you had mentioned. What kinds of things happen in real-estate that felt off to you? What kind of interventions did you feel like were possible?
S: It was very difficult. You start to connect the dots of what I'm doing in my everyday work life, having this profound impact on global systems, so trying to tease that apart and understand how did my individual decisions make a difference. What can I change in terms of those decisions?
To get down into the nitty-gritty, we are using these products on a project. Well, let's read this can of paint or this tube of caulk. Or let's try to pull apart this piece of equipment that is going into this building and understand what is the whole value chain associated with this? What are the impacts?
And, of course, it was impossible to discern that at that point, because there wasn't enough information, but just the act of questioning those things started to shift the way I practiced and the way other people were practicing.
B: So there is this question around the value chain. Of course, there are so many elements to a house or a complex that would be behind it. This idea of LEAD did that exist then? How did it come about?
S: It didn't. The journey that I was taking, connecting to more and more people, eventually lead me to the emerging US Green Building Council [USGBC]. I had actually started a non-profit in Philadelphia called the Delaware Valley Green Building Council. USGBC had started to organize. It was a very tiny group of people. And people started to come together.
The first gathering of people from across the country in the USGBC community would have fit in an average sized conference room. But it grew. And everybody who was part of the conversation was struggling with how we measure this, how we begin to understand what the environmental impact of a building was. Later on larger questions started to emerge around the social impact of what we were doing, but at that point it was the environmental impact.
So the idea of LEED or a system to measure the impact we were doing to a built environment emerged and then that was developed over a period of years.
B: Would it be possible to share what LEED is?
S: LEED is an acronym that stands for Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design. It is a system to guide and measure the impact of the build environment--buildings and infrastructure. And it is broken into impact areas like sustainable sight, things that happen outside the building, water, energy, materials and material flows, indoor environmental quality which affects the way we as human beings perform and our health. 29:50
There are basically credits in each of those impact areas that you elect to try to achieve when you are developing a LEED building. It is an imperfect system. It has always been in a state of evolution. But it is a place to start. The first version of LEED was launched in 2000. It began to alter the landscape, because now there was a common benchmark for people to rally around when it came to what they were doing.
B: This has now become the standard in which sustainable building is done. Is that fair to say?
S: Yeah, it has become business as usual in the United States in many sectors of the construction market and in other parts of the world. There are other systems in other parts of the world. There is system like it in the United Kingdom. There is one in Japan. Other countries have developed their own. The systems have created a dramatic shift in the industry.
The theory of change underlaying the whole idea of LEED is that this system would become a stake in the ground out at the emergent edge of what was possible for the innovators and early adopters. That they would begin to use it. People would see examples of this move out into the marketplace. And then the mainstream market awareness would grow. If you can imagine a bell curve, the hump in the middle would start to shift toward what the early adopters and innovators were doing. And that happened.
It started to happen very quickly around 2005-7. The organization, LEED, and the Green Building Movement went through this period of explosive growth. What happened to me during that period was a dawning awareness. I had a front row seat. I ended up as chairman of US Green Building Caps when I was involved in the development and deployment of LEED.
Everywhere that I went, I saw people from the industry--tired old architects and developers and bankers and product manufacturers and people from the insurance industry--who were getting engaged with green building and their lives were being infused with meaning. A replication of what I had experienced.
I started to understand that the engine that was driving the change had nothing to do with the buildings or with LEED or even the impacts of buildings. The engine that was driving the change was this process of awakening of the individuals that were being drawn into the space.
B: Green building is an excuse.
S: Green building is an excuse. It put them on a ladder of awareness.And people would get on the ladder at very low rungs like business development, this was the hot new thing and we want a piece of the action. Once they were on the ladder, they had to climb, because the one really great thing about LEED and other products like it is that you had to learn. As you learned, behind every credit in LEED there was an intent. It would push people to start to think differently, to question what they were doing. Ultimately, as they moved up the ladder, connect them in a very personal way with these larger systemic impacts or issues that were affecting the whole human family. And with the realization that what they were doing everyday in their lives could make a difference.
They would just wake up. Their lives would be infused with meaning and energy. And they would keep moving up the ladder. And I saw that as this is really what is driving this massive shift, this process of individual awakening.
B: I'm curious if you have any particular stories of particular people? In some ways it is so easy to paint business as part of the problem, and if you can just describe a process...I can imagine even for the person themselves, it is hard to see three steps ahead, and yet that journey still continues forward. Do you have examples of anyone who went through that journey of awakening with this as a vehicle?
S: Many. Yeah. I probably shouldn't use individual names. So there was a very large national architectural firm whose CEO was kind of drawn into this space. I became close to this person. He followed that exact trajectory. At first it was OK this will be good for our company. It will help drive more business into the company.
That person started to ask me how do I educate myself, so I started to share resources. Not necessarily related to green building, but more around sustainability in general. Books like Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken and other things like that. It started a very intense dialogue, where this person just became a sponge to learn more and more and more. Gradually, he started to realize that he was complicit in these large global issues by virtue of the way that they were practicing.
Now this is a firm with hundreds of architects and planners and landscape architects. He began to bring the people who worked in that organization together to have a deeper conversation. And he, himself, started to experience this revitalization of being and what he was doing. Then he began to take the next step.
What happens when people move up this ladder of awareness is they get to a point where they start to sense their fundamental connection to everybody else and then to everything else. That is often a launching point for them to begin the process of deep personal journey. I mean true awakening in that they begin to engage in psychological and spiritual development that opens up an even vaster landscape for them. And that happened to this particular individual who was a CEO of a large company. And that impacted the trajectory of the entire company and the people that work for them.
B: To hear that as a microcosm of what other folks are going through, it seems like the ending of othering--that this business is bad, they are part of the problem. Now they can be part of the solution, if I'm understanding correctly.
S: Correct. Yes.
B: So I hear you describing the beginnings of this new verbiage around green building and also how it started to grow quite rapidly, and yet I get the sense that there are still some limitations that you saw in that work. Can you speak to what you felt was not being spoken to.
S: For me, when I had that awakening, it was really what was occurring with the individuals is what was driving the change. I've been on this journey of education, trying to understand what does it mean to be sustainable. Of course, for me it started with environmental sustainability, but then it moved out to understand our connections to each other as human beings and what is happenings to human beings as a result of the way we behave as business people.
So all that education fit into it. I got to a point where I realized that the most important thing that I could do was continue to work on my own development and bring that into my work and the world. I will say that at the beginning of that that was a very scary thing for me. But I found myself compelled to do that. Being in relationship with the people that I was working with--with clients and suppliers, and the people that came in contact with in my role as chair of USGVC--and really learning to bring my whole self into those relationships and to not hold back. I knew it was the right thing to do and I found that people responded to that immediately. That everyone was hungry for that. 41:03 Everybody was hungry to have a conversation about what does it mean for us to be human beings in this world.
B: Sandy, how did you do that? Besides from the talking aspect, where does the fear come from and what concretely do you do at the microlevel to invite that in?
S: So the fear comes from our cultural conditioning. That that is not what you do First of all, you don't expose yourself. You don't become vulnerable with other people. Second of all, if you are in the business world then there is no place in the business world for talking about compassion and love. Heaven help if you talk about love in the business world. So we are conditioned to think that this is off base, and that is where the fear comes from.
At the microlevel how you do it, it is a practice. It begins with your own personal practice and the development and your development and the process of awakening that you are going through. Then carrying that out into the world in your everyday life at every level.
I'm just going to make up an example. You are working with somebody who is your client and you notice something about them on a particular day. Something is a little off, so you stop in the middle of your discussion of whatever the business issue is and you say, "How are you? What is going on with you?" You do that in a way that leaves an opening for them to respond honestly.
And you discover that they have just gone through a divorce or one of their children has been diagnosed with cancer and that leads you into another conversation. That is an example of how you do it. You train yourself to listen to what you know at the deepest level is going on with the people you are in contact with and then to act on that, to respond to it rather than to ignore it, which is what we are typically conditioned to do.
B: Thank you for unpacking that. So you are trying to live this more, and yet I'm assuming that this has no corollary in the LEED standard?
S: No it does not. I will say LEED is still very big and USGVC has grown very big. I'm no longer involved with USGVC. I've moved on from that community back in 2007, but this process of moving through the landscape of what you are doing in this world into the place of meaning and using that as a launchpad for a journey of individual awakening is happening in many different forms or domains. So you and I are collaborating in the world of finance. And it is happening there. We see it so many of the people we come in contact with.
The other hat that I wear is in the world of local economies with an organization called BALLE (the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies). And that has become a maintain of the work that we do at BALLE.
B: Let's touch on some of these additional points. So you got into finance some years ago. How can the banking sector play a role in the journey of awakening?
S: Again, when I was at the very apex of this activity with USGVC back in 2006-7, I was spending the majority of my time traveling around the world meeting with communities of business people and sharing with them what I knew and trying to learn from what they knew. But everywhere I went I was hearing this constant refrain, "Yes, we want to do this. We want to change the way that we operate our supply chain or we want to build this environmentally responsible new campus or headquarters, but we can't find the money. The banks won't listen to us, or they don't understand what we are trying to do." There was this constant chatter in the background that began with the introduction of LEED in 2000 that it didn't make economic sense. 46:52 Coming out of a very single bottom-line paradigm.
So I started to see finances as "the pig in the pipe" which is a term unique to our construction industry. If you can imagine a pipe, there is something called a pig which is a rubber stopper in the pipe which stops the flow of water or sewerage or whatever is going through it. So finance to me became the pig in the pipe. It was stopping the flow of whatever needed to happen.
I began to become very interested in how we might shift those flows. And concurrent with that, actually beginning earlier, BALLE was started by a dear friend named Judy Wicks in Philadelphia. She and I were very close companions. She was a business woman who operated a restaurant in Philadelphia. Her focus on the importance of going local, of using business as a tool in your community to actually build vibrancy and resilience in your community and how that translated into vibrant, sustainable local economies which then had this incredible positive effect on global sustainability. That awareness was building in me at the same time.
This desire to do something about finance and my awareness of the importance of local economies that all converged in around 2007. In 2008, I decided to leave USGBC. I felt like I had contributed what I could there and was not excited about where the organization was going at that point. So I launched out to do something about how finance worked.My first attempt was to try to start a triple-bottom line bank.
To get back to your question, as we stepped into this effort to launch this commercial bank, regulated bank, I started with a vision and a set of guiding principles that were grounded in this understand that had grown in me that we are in relationship with everything and everything we do in life has an impact. I started to think deeply about the finances and the flow of money and what does that actually mean. And I began to see money as a form of energy. That the way that we use money carries our intentions for the world with it. That was baked into this effort that we started with the bank and with the people that were working in the bank. 50:24
B: So my perspective is that you are getting pretty fuddled in what it means to utilize money when you start talking about things like intention. So how do you see this kind of level of awareness--I hear you talking about things that seem to be really beneath the surface. You mentioned earlier engaging with a person's emotions at a latent level when what you are supposed to be doing is talking about business. How do you think about tracking this sort of stuff? Is there a way that the traditional world keeps asking for metrics. How do you know you are successful? Or some way to say, "Yes, this is allowing us to grow." Do those questions come up?
S: Sure they do. They come up all the time. The way that you know you are successful, I believe, is by what you know. What is most important is your own deep inner knowing. You know you are successful when you have responded to that inner knowing and you see the results of that in the way you exist, the way that you be in the world. But in business people always want metrics. They want to understand the lot of single-bottom line. The financial path of what you are doing. And for me that is just an opportunity to open up broader questions or broader dialogue.
As a business person, you need to sustain your operations, so you need to be able to get paid for what you do or what service or product that you offer and take care of the people that work in that business. You need to be able to continue to evolve as a business. You need to be able to make a profit of some kind in order to keep the business growing. But to me, the dawning realization was that business really exists to serve people. Business is just to get people better lives. It fits into a much larger picture. I'm constantly stepping back and trying to understand what I am doing and what we as the human family is doing in the context of the larger picture.
Right now we are all on this phone call, sitting wherever we are, on our little planet earth in this vast universe. We are in a tiny little corner outpost of this vast universe which is one of many universes, the multi-verse, which is part of something larger than that beyond our comprehension. So that is where we are right now. What is that all about?
I've come to understand that there is an evolutionary trajectory in all of that. And I mean evolution in the strictest sense of the word. The same way we think about it when we talk about evolution in nature. Well, we are part of nature. Culture and society are an extension of nature. The process of evolution continues no though our culture and society, even through business. The vector or trajectory of this evolution is towards higher states of awareness and consciousness. I won't posit where that might be going. I think we are all trying to understand that. But that is the movement. There is this upwelling of creation into higher states of organization, beauty, awareness, consciousness. In spite of all the suffering that we see, that is what's going on.
You can track that in the moment of the Big Bang forward. So how does that relate to what we are doing in business today? Are we using our skills as business people to actually move along that vector or are we inhibiting movement? In very practical terms, to move along that vector we need to be in relationship with the people we are doing business with all the way up and down the value chain. We need to be in relationship with the planet. We need to be in relationship with ourselves. And we need to bring that right down to the point of the pencil with every decision that we make.
Going back to your question of how do you bring that into banking and finance? Well, bankers make loans and they collect deposits. So, who are we lending to? And what are we trying to accomplish with the flow of our depositor's money in terms of what we finance? For me, a big part of what we were trying to do with the bank was make that direct, transparent, personal connection between the people who were putting their money in the bank and the people who were being recipients of that money in the terms of loans.
So we want to use the bank to educate the people who are depositing their money into the bank about what the potential of their deposits are and we want to let them see what is happening as we deploy the assists out in the world in favor of moving along that evolutionary vector. You could look at the divest/invest conversation that is so big in our financial landscape today. Do we invest in mountain top coal removal or do we invest in solar energy? That is a very simple binary choice.
When a borrower begins to have problems with their business and can't repay their loan,do we go into the conventional cycle of trying to "work out that loan" by trying to get it off our books as quickly as we can or do we work through the loan? Do we work with the individual? 58:04
Do we find ways to incentivize the people who are borrowing from us to do better by saying, "Look, we believe that it is so important that you treat your employees like human beings and you work to better their quality of lives and you are influencing your own supply chain so that they're socially and environmentally sustainable and they are building social equity. As you can document for us that you are doing that, we are going to extend better loan terms and conditions to you. Like a lower interest rate or less collateralization."
From a business perspective, why does that work? Because we know that if you are moving in that direction, you are becoming a better risk bet for the bank. So that is how you translate it in terms of people who are on the single bottom-line. People that care, people that are in relationships, people that care what is going on with their immediate community and global community are going to take more care, and they are ultimately going to be less risky from the perspective of the bank.
B: There are different ways to receive what you are sharing. I heard you mention the work of Degardin previously about this evolutionary impulse that I have found a lot of value in that to name it if listeners are called.
So there is a movement out there in business now that I think will resonate a lot with what you just said. It is called conscious capitalism. One of the things that is underneath this movement is this belief in the sacrosanct nature of the system as it is. To what extent as you think about this very broad picture that you have painted across our multi-verse bringing it back down into the systems that we are operating in--the water of our fishbowl if you will. How does the idea of self maximization or the invisible hand of Adam Smith that banks swim in their everyday water grappled with from your journey of evolution that we try to bring and live in our business life?
S: The whole financial system is predicated on principals like some of the ones you articulated that are a product of human thought, but are not necessarily right. What you need to do is step back and step out of the system as it exists now and what is possible. And then take that on.
And that is what is happening. That is what we are seeing in the world of social finance--mission investing. Mission investing is a really good case in point. So one of the communities of practice that we are working with at BALLE and at RSF Social Finance where you and I are collaborators is with community foundations who are philanthropic organizations that collectively have close to half a trillion dollars in assets in the United States.
Most of that is conventionally invested in traditional mainstream portfolios, public equities and the bond market. We are working with these community foundations around shifting those assets out of those conventional portfolios into alignment with their mission into their communities. It is hard work. It does not fit into the mainstream paradigm. It doesn't fit into modern portfolio theory, which is the underlying Bible for how people invest money. But it does respond to a values based approach.
As we met with these community foundation leaders. For those who are not familiar with community foundations, they are old guard institutions. The are philanthropies, but they are a legacy of the banking industry. Typically, there boards are populated with bankers and wealth advisors and folks from that world. But working with the individual leaders from these institutions, we start by having them go deep within themselves and really try to understand what is happening inside of them. What are they trying to bring into the world. What are their particular gifts. And what are the values that drive them at their deepest level and help them begin from there to start thinking about "how would I use all of our financial assets in the world, because I've got all the assists. We have got grants, and we try to make good in the world with our grants, but what about the other 95% of our assets that are invested in Wall Street. What could we do with them based on these deep seated values." From that place, build a strategy that is based on their values and work from that into dealing with the issues of how do I actually develop the capacity to move these investment assets out of the funds that our wealth advisors have them in into local real-estate, local social enterprises and non-profits that are creating the type of change in our community that we exist for.
The answer is you need to actually step out of the system. You can't be in the system and do this kind of work at the level I'm talking about. You need to be willing to step out.
B: Love the answer. 65:49 When you think about all of these practical mundane things and how in someways it is informed by your growing inner knowing, can you share with us what the edge of your own personal practice is at this time?
S: Sure. The edge of my own personal practice right now is letting go of meaning. All of us are constantly in story. Many of the people who are on the call understand what I am talking about. As we relate to each other and to the world we are constantly in a state of story, concocting stories or living out of a story that we've concocted or that have been developed in us by our culture over many, many years.
As we begin to let go of those stories and peal them away one after another, we reach a place where we realize that those stories are a way to support us and to mask the fear that comes with complete release, complete relinquishing. Even the search for meaning is an attempt at some level for us to create another story that removes us from being at its deepest level. I don't know how to express it any more clearly than that, but letting go of that. Being willing to live in the absence of meaning and a holding of both the transcendent and absolute presence at the same time. That is kind of the edge of my practice right now.
B: That is a beautiful way of speaking to that. I couldn't even call it a thought, but the words that came up in my mind were the Buddhist concept of emptiness, the sanskrit word of sunyata. Anything that you hold onto is a mental construct at some point and the fear of letting that go.
Deven: Sandy, I'm just in awe of the last thought you shared there. Thinking and sitting in a cage. One of the things that has struck a very deep chord with me is listening to yourself at the deepest level. That step outside of your current state, like your current state of mind or mindset, and look at it. What comes to me is a story from the business world. We do consulting work and we work with a number of construction companies. About a couple of months ago, we were working on this messaging marketing for a company, and I mentioned LEED, and he said, "You know LEED is good to put there because everyone else is doing it, but doesn't mean anything to my business." I just held the thought for a moment, because LEED is such a big thing. How can people not relate to that or why would people think that it does not relate to their day to day business. I think that speaks to the lack of sensitivity or lack of awareness about what it is that you are doing and the impact on the world in a sustainable way.
But I'm still seeing these divides. You talk about the bell curve, I still see a gap. I would love to see it adopted better and faster. What are your experiences and thoughts about inspiring more people to think in this way?
S: Yeah, Deven, I think what you're experiencing is very common.Really at its root is why I decided to move on from USGBC. LEED has become a system that got broad market adoption, but going back to what I said earlier about my realization that the engine that was really driving its rapid adoption and growth had more to do with the process of awakening that was occurring in individual human beings. If you get down the the intent level of LEED. If you actually read the rating system, every credit in LEED begins with an intent, which is like, "This credit exists because this is what we are trying to do in the world." And you begin to unpack that. That starts to take you into this place where you really begin to, at a very visceral level, think about the impacts of what you are doing in the world as a business person.
Many, many people use LEED today because that's what they are being told to do. And it has become like a building code. You have to do it, we are going to do it. Or our customers ask for it, we are going to do it, without really getting to the point where they understand why they are doing it. Or that it has any connection to them personally. To me the only thing that really matters is individual awakening.
I still do a lot of work in the world of green building and sustainable development, and I operate in the world of social finance, and I'm very involved in the world of local economies, but in all of those domains, what I'm always looking for is the opportunity to engage people in a very personal level, to support them in their own awakening.
I have a teacher who once told me that the definition of love is the unrelenting commitment to respond to the need for awakening in your self and the other in every moment. To me that is all that matters. It is not any easy fix. It's not a magic bullet. When you look at environmental sustainability. All of the LEEDs of the world, public policy, regulation, all that stuff helps, but it is not going to get us over the hump. What is going to get us over the hump is enough people waking up. We actually have to move at the level of the individual.
And the fundamental increment for change is the individual human choice. So in your work, in my work, in Birju's work, in everybody's work, what we need to do is look for the opportunity to engage with people as individuals. In this dialogue about "why do we exist?" "What is the soul about?"
You can do it. So with your builders, I don't know what the right conversation is. Maybe it is a conversation about their family and what they really want for their family. And most people when you unpack it want the same thing. They want their family to be safe and secure and happy. That can lead to a conversation that moves into the sphere of for them to be safe and happy and secure, we need an sustainable environment. You realize that what you do as a builder has a big impact on that. There is always a way to get there if you are willing to be present and patient.
Deven: Thinking about what you are doing. I wish there was more and more of that. This reminds me of another Awakin call we had with Duane Elgin. I read his book, Voluntary Simplicity, and he is touching on sustainability in a very holistic and a very nice way. He touched very deeply with me. And he said the same thing also: that it all starts with the individual. in a small scale where you are, how do you go about changing a little bit that you are able in your circle of influence. And when you said why, Sandy. I just smiled her because I had this book sitting right in front of me on this table. It says, "Start with Why."
Our companies say, I want to get LEED credit because it is economically beneficial to me or I'm getting some sort of incentive or advantage, but when an incentive is really carrying a deeper meaning, it takes on a different trajectory, a different journey of its own that is so much more meaningful.
S: When that light bulb goes off for the individual, then you can step away. Your job is done. There is no turning back, once those connections are made.
Deven: We have a question here from Albert: "Thank you, Sandy for sharing your story and your work and ongoing quest. I'm an architect living next to Oakland's Jack London Square neighborhood. Watching the evolution of our neighborhood and city as it responds to the influx of San Francisco's increase rent and property values and responding with the same unsustainable, traditional municipal fiscal values. I'm watching developers continuing to propose approved high-rise condos and bedroom communities and wondering where the grocery stores, schools, dog parks, and infrastructure is, not to mention solar access, daylight, and open space. Do you have any insights or suggestions on how to participate and organize while continuing to work on our own individual awakening?"
S: Yes. Working on your own individual awakening brings your awareness to what is going on. You need to get people together. You need to bring people together who care about the issues that you are raising, so that their voices can be heard collectively.
One of the frameworks that we use in BALLE is the I, the we, and the it. The I being ourselves, the individual person, the individual leader. The we being the collective or network that we are part of that has a common purpose or common set of values. And the it being the systems change that we are aspiring to. You really need to maintain a focus on all three of those at the same time, I believe for that framework to be effective.
The area that gets the least attention is the I. But we have to be working on ourselves in order to create an effective "we." And we have to be constantly focusing on making the critical connections on people that are waking up. so that they become an effective "we."
My counsel to you in this particular case would be to find the other people in your community, in the Jack London area, that care about these things and call them together. Begin gathering. And have a conversation. And reach out to your governing body. Reach out to the people in local government and invite them to your gatherings. You need to get engaged. This is where it all happens. You bring your full self, your point of personal evolution, where you are today. You bring all of that into your day-to-day life and translate it into action. You know what the right thing to do is and others in your community know what the right thing to do is. You need to come together as a "we" to help make that happen.
Gaitri: The thought that is coming up for me is given our deep rooted conditioning especially when it comes to economics--we hold onto it so dearly, like it is our life--do you think sustainable economics has the time to afford this for every individual to break out of this, to come up realize themselves. Do you think there is time? Or sustainable economics itself can be proposed in a way that it appeals to the masses? For example, when we go out to buy a house, the very underlying thought is how much money am I going to make in this place? Nobody thinks about where is this wood coming from? Or how is this carpet being made? How is this house being fixed? Where is the granite coming from? Any thoughts on that?
S: Does it have the time? That is a good question. We are in a bit of a horse race, the human family. Anybody that spends any of their time looking at the calculus of sustainability realizes that it is not clear whether it is a solvable problem or whether there is enough time to do it. But I do believe that it is possible.
I want to be really clear. I have this tremendous focus on the individual and the individual awakening because I think that is where we have to start. It is really where we have to put our attention. But we have to then translate that into action. Not go to the monastery, but bring it into our everyday lives and translate it into action. We are co-creators of this world, and we need to see ourselves in the way.
You take your individual awareness and you bring it to what you do everyday, whether that is buying a house or organizing your community. One thing that I know from my experience with the green building movement and more recently over the last decade with the local economies movement is that change can happen really fast. LEED didn't exist in 2000. That was 16 years ago. Construction is one of the largest industries in the world. Over the course of really a decade, from 2000-2010, green building has become a 4 billion dollar/year industry. And it didn't exist a little over a decade ago. So it can happen really fast. And the way that it happens is by individuals translating what they know into action and creating functional exemplars that inspire other people to do the same thing.
The first LEED platinum building was developed by a non-profit, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Everybody said, "It can't be done. It is too expensive. Nobody is going to pay attention to this." And they did it. They made the commitment and they did it. They built that building. Tens of thousands of people came to see it. And they said, "Oh, you can do this. Well, maybe we can do this too." Then another one got built. Now there is many tens of thousands of LEED platinum buildings in the world.
So you need to translate it into action. You do what you can do. You put it out there in the world. You show other people how it works. So in the terms of sustainable finance, it is the same thing. Both Birju and I know scores of people that are working to do that, to shift the way that they use money that is in alignment with their deep knowing and their values. I'm starting to see it. They are putting it out there in the world and other people are being attracted to it. So maybe that is a theory of change.
Deven: The part of sustainability is inequity. You have haves and have nots. And the inequity is even getting more wider and more dramatic. You have people deprived of basic things in the world, then you have people just holding things. And that inequity is not sustainable either. It is a root cause of so many of these issues. What are your thoughts on that?
S: Number one: it is true. Number two: to go back to awakening, the individual development is a huge part of the answer. As you develop yourself, as other people wake up, as this sense of connection to each other and the rest of the world evolves, you get to the point where you realize that I am not separate. Many, many beneficial things come out of that from the perspective of equity.
First of all, you realize that all this stuff that you have gathered around yourself, whether it is financial wealth or material things, really doesn't matter. Second of all, you realize, "I just can't exist in this world as long as my brother or my sister is hungry or poor." Everything that we do everyday. Every nickel that we spend, every decision that we make has an impact on billions of other people. So it starts to shift the way you behave at a macro level, meta-level, in terms of inequity. And it changes the way that you operate at a micro level in the way that you behave as an individual in relationship to other people everyday. We have to tend to the "i"--our own spiritual and psychological development. I always put those two together because they are intricately intertwined in order for us to bring into action, to live into the world, the values that we espouse in the most effective way possible and inspire others to follow us on the journey.
Deven: Such a beautiful wrap up. At Service Space we try to practice Mahatma Gandhi's "Be the change you wish to see in the world." And you connected it so well. That could be a macro level issue, but how you relate to where you are and what you are doing about it.
That small step can go such a long way.
Thank you so much, Sandy, for making that connection for us. We all, Service Space volunteers, as part of this ecosystem, how can we help you in your work which is so deeply touching and so meaningful?
S: What came up for me immediately is tend to yourselves. Tend to the "I." That is what is most important to me. Tend to the "I." Be serious about your own personal journey. Your own personal practice, your commitment to continue to evolution, because I know that is going to have ripple effects that are incalculable.
From Student Activist to Prisoner to Monk to Global Leader
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